By Sister Marilyn Sunderman
Catherine McAuley, founder of the Sisters of Mercy, was born on September 29, 1778. Catherine built an expansive House of Mercy in heart of Dublin, Ireland, where women and children in need could come for help. At the root of her good works was a deep Christian spirituality that continues to inspire the charism of Sisters of Mercy today. Over the next several weeks, till the anniversary of Catherine’s death on November 11, we’ll be exploring several dimensions of Catherine’s spiritual life.
According to Catherine, mercy repeatedly attunes itself to the signs of the times. With this in mind, Catherine encouraged her fellow sisters to engage in any ministry within their competence that met situations of need of those around them. Thus did members of the early Mercy community make their way into streets and alleyways and there, like Jesus, respond compassionately to persons in need.
In her own life, Catherine ministered in a merciful, compassionate way to cholera victims, destitute young women, the dying poor, homeless and unemployed persons, her sisters in Community, relatives and friends and enemies. In this way, she modelled to the members of her sisterhood that the works of Mercy constituted the business of their lives.
Welcoming others is at the heart of hospitality that knows no strangers. Such hospitality is pivotal in Catherine’s spirituality. She believed that God is encountered in the guise of those in need of being welcomed. With this in mind, she declared: “I would rather be cold and hungry than the poor in Kingston [Jamaica] or elsewhere be deprived of any consolation in our power to afford.”
In Catherine’s own life, practicing the virtue of hospitality proved very demanding. Its challenges included being the legal guardian of nine children (her five orphaned nieces and nephews, an orphaned cousin, and two orphans she took in from the street), nursing sick and dying persons, sheltering women and children, and undertaking arduous travel in Ireland and England to establish multiple houses of Mercy.
In the course of the 14 years that Catherine lived at the House of Mercy on Baggot Street, she opened its doors and her heart to a multitude of strangers who sought assistance in their needs. During the 1832 cholera epidemic in Ireland, Catherine brought an orphaned girl to the Baggot Street house where, like a mother, she cared for this little one.
As her life drew to a close, Catherine demonstrated hospitality at the highest level. As she lay on her deathbed at the House of Mercy on Baggot Street in Dublin, Catherine offered words of encouragement to each sister who visited her. Furthermore, she requested that immediately after her death, everyone should enjoy a comfortable cup of tea. At that time, tea was expensive; so, in effect, Catherine was calling for her loved ones to enjoy a special experience to console each other and to celebrate their beloved’s entrance into the eternal hospitality of God.
Catherine’s following words capture her understanding of hospitality:
“There are things the poor prize more highly than gold, though they cost the donor nothing; among these are the kind word, the gentle, compassionate look, and the patient hearing of their sorrows.”
A matter of the heart, hospitality lends an ear and extends a hand. In essence, hospitality mirrors God’s welcoming, cordial, tender care.